Albania… for a holiday?!

When I first told my fiends I was considering Albania as a holiday destination I was thinking more about escaping the searing heat that is currently making life uncomfortable in southern Turkey. On the whole most people were surprised and some even suggested there was a good reason it was the only country in Europe that I had never visited. So by the time I flew there at the start of this month I was beginning to be a little wary of what I might find.

As I stepped off the plane at the capital Tirana’s airport, I was surprised to be hit by a blast of hot air that felt almost as hot as the blast that had seen me off from Bodrum airport just a few hours earlier.
So I was glad to reach the air-conned sanctuary of my hotel in the centre of town. The heat took no time to convince me that I must head for the cooler mountains, but of course I needed to explore the city sights before I left.

pyramid

“We don’t really have any, or well not too many”, was a quite surprising response from the girl on reception to my enquiry as to where was the best place to find things of interest in Tirana. Normally I would have done more research before I got there, but because my life had been a blur of deadlines and tinged with a difficult period in my personal life, I knew little beyond the sobering fact that the only half decent margarita in the whole city, where at the Shereton hotel, which is exactly where the receptionist directed me as a final destination for my brief city walk.

At the centre of Tirana is an oval one way system, which is surrounded by several thick set government buildings and topped and tailed by the cities opera house and its art gallery. On one half there stood a very old mosque lit up by twinkly lights because it was Ramadan, which stood adjacent to an old English clock tower, which had been restored in 2010. That was pretty much it for the sights. However, as I walked down towards the Shereton and my parsimonious and overpriced cocktail, I discovered two sights that she had forgotten to mention. They were both grotesque in there own way. The first was the heavily graffiti’d pyramid mausoleum of the countries late, communist period dictator Enver Hoxha, a leader now so out of favour I was told a right of passage for many of the young men of the city was to climb to the top and urinate over the side of it.

The second ‘sight’ or should I say eyesore, was the odd collection of broken concrete and defunct fountains in front of the university, which called itself Mother Teresa square. Mother Teresa although born in Greece, was long ago claimed by Albania as one of its own. Before I visited I had not heard of a single famous person from there, beyond the infamous Hoxha.

motherteresa

I had allowed 2 days to explore Tirana, when less than 2 hours served just as well. So on the 3rd day I headed for the cooler mountains and eventually ended up at a place called Lake Prespa, where I recovered for a day before pressing on south to a place called Berat, which has Unesco world heritage status…

I have just noticed that I have drifted into travelogue style, which I will stop immediately; if you want to know about the country or the sights ask Mr Google. However, I still feel that I really must warn you, dear Reader, of some of the hazards you will face if you decide to hire a car. If you can avoid driving, please do so. Although I did drive mainly because the bus services are so notoriously unreliable, a whole service route is often cancelled for a day or two, rather than just an individual bus being struck off. The other reason I did so was because I drive for much of the year in Turkey, a country with only a fractionally better road safety record than Albania, so I thought I would be fine. However, nothing could have prepared me for the significant problems I encountered on the roads, which if nothing else you should bare in mind if you are ever brave enough to hire a car there.

When communism fell in 1992 there were only 800 cars in the whole country, the drivers of which, I was told had rarely been bothered to take any kind of formal driving test at all. Twenty years on the roads seem awash with vehicles, old and new, but few people seem to understand the basic rules let alone the courtesies of driving. When I asked a man, staying at my hotel, who drove a huge black SUV, if the country’s driving test was difficult, he gave me an intriguing answer: “Sometimes but only if you actually take the test.”

My final bit of travel advice still concerns Albania’s roads, or should I say their maps? I had a quite detailed map of the country’s road system that showed everything from motorways down to small dirt tracks. However, I should have thrown it away for all the use it was once I discovered that the only roads almost guaranteed to have a layer of tarmac on them are the motorways and some busy A roads. The rest, and by that I mean the vast majority have at best some decent stretches of tar or cobbles, which all too frequently disintegrate into nothing but heavily pot holed dirt tracks, and that is the A roads, forget the B or smaller roads. You can also forget map gradients, which show you the climb and fall of a road. I made the mistake of assuming the lack of gradients on my map meant that the road on my map between the west coast cities of Vlore and Himare meant it was a simple coast hugging road…WRONG! This was one of the most scary roads I have ever driven on, even without the presence of Albanian drivers, many who display little proof that they posses the skills not to force you over one of the many 1 kilometre drops, either side of Loggia pass. Indeed, I was so frazzled after my first encounter with this pass, that I ended up staying in a hotel for the night at the top rather than contemplate driving its entire length in one go the second time I had to cross on my way home.

So would I recommend Albania as a holiday destination? Well, yes, eventually, when they get a bit more infrastructure together, but at the moment although it is an interesting country in many ways, and the people are friendly, it will inevitably continue to be absent from many peoples ‘wish lists.’


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Why Earthquakes have Doubled this Year

If you think there have been more earthquakes than usual this year, you may be right. A new study recently found there were more than twice as many big earthquakes, worldwide in the first quarter of 2014 as compared with the average since 1979. So should we be worried?

After living in Turkey for a few years there are certain things you do almost without thinking about it: You never drink the tap water, you always, always check your restaurant bill and you notice every once in a while, the odd shake of the ground or just occasionally feel a jolt that can make you uneasy on your feet. These are of course earth tremors from deep underground or they are the reduced energy of a more distant bigger earthquake. On the whole people don’t tend to dwell on them too much and just accept that earthquakes will always be an issue in this region, and so you get on with your lives hoping that the next ‘Big One’ will be far, far away from you and yours. However, this head in the sand approach has been a little harder to achieve these past months after several TV news items about earthquakes, one after the other, have filled our TV screens.

Ostrich"
Photo by Leonardo Hendler

Tom Parsons, a research geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, California, and co-author of the study with Eric Geist, told us last week that we have recently experienced a period that has had one of the highest rates of great earthquakes ever recorded.
But even though the global earthquake rate appears to be on the rise, he said the number of quakes can still be explained by random chance. With so many earthquakes rattling the planet in 2014, Parsons actually hoped his study might find the opposite — that the increase in big earthquakes comes from one large quake setting off another huge shaker. Earlier research had shown that seismic waves from one earthquake can travel around the world and trigger tiny temblors or aftershocks elsewhere and must admit that this was also my own pretty set view until now.

When I first moved to Turkey, many years ago, I was very aware that it was a higher than normal earthquake risk area. The reason for my awareness was because the fringes of Istanbul, the city I initially moved to, where rattled by two large earthquakes within weeks of each other in 1999. The first quake that hit with a magnitude 7.4 on the 17th August was centred close to the nearby city of Izmit. It caused extensive damage, and it was estimated that up to 17,000 people were killed, with a further half a million made homeless. The second quake struck less than 3 months later with a magnitude 7.2 shake near the city of Duzce, which lies about 100km further east from Izmit. This time the death toll was less than a thousand but the affect of two large earthquakes, so close together understandably made people believe that one must have set of the other. And so it created a climate of fear for quite a while after the events. Indeed, I often saw people testing walls with their hands, or perhaps after a heavy lorry drove by rattling windows, some people would actually run out into the open, if only to confirm that the shake had nothing to do with the Great Anatolian fault, which cuts right through Istanbul.

Ostrich"
Photo by Yelingyang

In the days that followed the Duzce quake I remember many world seismology experts coming and going and making various predictions. The one I remember most of all was an assessment that Istanbul itself would suffer a similar if not more devastating earthquake within the next 25 years. That expert, whose name I have long forgotten dramatically told us that because of the unpredictability of earthquakes, it could be in 25 years time or it could happen the day after tomorrow. That was in 1999, so by his estimation, the next big quake must hit Istanbul sometime in the next 10 years. The other thing that sticks in my mind from all of those news items back then was learning just how difficult it was to make any prediction at all, other than those based on historical records of earthquakes past. While some still declared that the Duzce earthquake must have been triggered by the Izmit earthquake, that seemed to be based on nothing but supposition.

Anyway, fifteen years on few people seem to be as bothered as much as they were in 1999 and a certain fatalism has taken over. If it happens it happens – what can I do?’ or from the more religious minded ‘If it kills me, then of course it is simply Allah’s will.’ Although that later statement has been used for as long as I can remember as an excuse for many different things and is often put forward as a big factor in the way many people drive so badly here, with little care and attention to the road to the point that the death rate on the roads is so many times higher than in most other countries.

As I said earlier I had gradually leaned towards the belief that some earthquakes do set each other off, but according to the study I seem to be wrong. Despite the recent earthquake storm, they concluded that the world’s great earthquakes still strike at random. The average rate of big earthquakes — those larger than magnitude 7 — has been 10 per year since 1979, the study reports. That rate rose to 12.5 per year starting in 1992, and then jumped to 16.7 per year starting in 2010 — a 65 percent increase compared to the rate since 1979. This increase accelerated in the first three months of 2014 to more than double the average since 1979, the researchers report.

“The rise in earthquakes is statistically similar to the results of flipping a coin,” Parsons finally declared, “sometimes heads or tails will repeat several times in a row, even though the process is random. Basically, we can’t prove that what we saw during the first part of 2014, or since 2010, isn’t simply a similar thing to getting six tails in a row.”


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